Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Thursday 18 October 2018

Tomb for an Eagle - launch day!

We're off! Available on Amazon as ebook and paperback, just going through the actions on Kobo and Smashwords if they are your preferred emporia. If you like it, please review it where you found it!

Now back to Hippolyta 4 - The Thankless Child. Who says time travel is impossible?

Saturday 6 October 2018

Viking Hiking

You know you’re in the right place when there are two Vikings waiting for the ferry.

Near the statue to Dr. John Rae, Ragnhild and Hlifolf (usually Mark) are loading bags and long iron rods on to the little MV Graemsay, ready to spend the day on the Orkney island of Hoy. Gathering on the quay at Stromness on the Orkney mainland are their customers who have signed up to go Viking Hiking for the day.

Mark wears a handwoven tunic with a tablet-weave belt (made by Ragnhild), while Ragnhild is in a long overdress with the traditional shouIder brooches and beads, with little woven bags on the belt at her waist.

We spend the thirty-minute ferry journey getting to know one another, while the boat skims between islands to our harbour, a small pier at the bottom of a hill.

Mark loads the gear on to one of the two local buses (one is driven by the post woman, and the other by Albert, who scoots about the island picking people up and dropping them off with no fixed route). We make sure we have pIenty of water and comfortable clothing. It’s a hot day, and the sea behind us glows deep blue and turquoise as if we are on a tropical island.

The vehicles disappear, leaving only the wind and birds for background noise, and we set off on a steep climb, at first by road, to reach the valley between Orkney’s two highest hills, Ward Hill at 479m and Cuilags at 433m. The road is scented with wild roses and meadowsweet, while tall yellow flag irises and cow parsley pool in the fields just beyond. Sheep graze, some already shedding their fleece in the hot weather.

As we walk at an easy pace, Ragnhild tells us more about flowers and plants we pass and their Viking medical uses, and when we take a break at the top of the pass she gives us a history of the Viking involvement in Orkney, from invasion to settlement to Denmark giving the islands back to Scotland as a queen’s dowry. It’s idyllic in the sun, the grass sprinkled with tiny flowers in yellow, white and purple, but we have a good distance to go yet.

Easier to spot as it catches the sunlight on its wind-dancing, white-bearded heads is the broad-leafed
 cottongrass, only found on Hoy in Orkney: the flatter ground around us glitters with its white strands. Larks rise from the heather, singing into the intense blue sky, and great auks, locally called bonxies, sweep slowly around the hillside on broad brown wings. Occasionally on an abandoned fence post there is a stonechat calling.

Ragnhild is knowledgeable about all things Orcadian, not just Viking times, and answers lots of questions from her hikers, though now and again she strides ahead (the path is easy to follow) and it seems almost as if she has wandered off to a time where she really is an Orcadian Norsewoman, blonde hair flying behind her, crossing the island to the bay and her longhouse home.

We pass Berriedale, Orkney’s oldest native woodland, birch and rowan – not much use to the Vikings for boat building, though. Orkney has very little timber and today the woodland is carefully preserved with firebreaks. A waterfall tumbles through it as it lies tucked into a fold of the hill. In the distance we can see the glittering sea on the other side of the island, cupped in the valley we are walking. Our goal is in sight.

After two or three hours we cross wetland on a narrow boardwalk, rejoin the road, and reach the end of the journey, the beautiful Rackwick Bay, where Mark, or Hlifolf, has the fire going on some stones and a huge horn of ale to welcome us. It’s very well received!

Then Ragnhild produces a long lump of beremeal dough - bere is an Orcadian form of barley, still much in use today and very tasty. She chops it into sections and we form our own bannocks, or flatbreads, and lay them to cook on a sandstone slab over the fire.

Mark has been making chicken stew - he’ll make a vegetarian one if requested. His Viking name, Hlifolf, is the name of the cook who was ordered to execute St. Magnus, the Viking earl of Orkney – the most famous cook in Viking history! As we wait for the meal to be ready Ragnhild tells us other tales from the sagas that have us laughing or awestruck, tales of battles and giants and mythical whirlpools. The stew is delicious, simple and very welcome, and the bannocks soak up the gravy.

The wind rises a little so after our meal we find a sheltered spot to try axe throwing, which is very popular, but requires some practice!

We try writing runes with charcoal on some slabs of stone, then Ragnhild shows us how to do tablet weaving, stretching the threads, turning them with squares of cardboard and running the weft between them, so that we can make belts like hers or Mark’s. Mark takes his turn to demonstrate how to make string from nettles, fearlessly stripping the stem and twisting the fibres against themselves to form a strong cord, then he gives us some tips on firelighting without matches, Viking-style.

Ragnhild takes over and plays two replica instruments for us, a sheepbone flute and a kind of Pan pipe based on a wooden instrument found at York’s Coppergate excavation. The sounds are pretty, delicate for warriors around a camp fire. Then, as she sings a particularly blood-thirsty Viking song, we join arms and dance in a long winding string, giggling. It’s a great way to end the Viking experience.

To save us the walk to the ferry, Albert the minibus driver collects us and takes us back by the road, where we’re lucky enough to stop by an RSPB station to watch sea eagle chicks and see the father bird soaring above. Further on Albert stops the bus again to point out a hen harrier in the valley below us. We reach the little pier in comfortable time for our ferry back to Stromness. We stand on the open deck, the wind in our hair, and in our imaginations, instead of the modern engines, there is the sound of ancient oars beating the water and a dragon on the prow.

Viking Hiking runs a few times in the summer, full days or half days, and is much to be recommended!